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Oryx and Crake – Margaret Atwood

September 18, 2011

I have a first edition of this book. Meaning it was purchased for me upon its release by my mother and I had not read it until quite recently. Does that strike you as ridiculous?

Margaret Atwood is a fantastic writer. I don’t think I need to add my voice to the symphony of voices that argue this. That said, there is a fairly strong listing of people who feel quite differently – who can’t appreciate her. They often cite her science fiction as the reason for this. ‘Science fiction’.

Margaret is quite well known for not enjoying this term when it is assigned to her novels. ‘Science fiction’ does not capture her intentions quite in the way that she wants them to be captured by the genres of literature. She suggests ‘social science fiction’ – a term that has floated around some authors for quite some time, but that just has not latched onto by the industry that survives because of them. Perhaps this is why even her ‘science fiction’ novels are found in the general fiction section of the book store.

I’d never previously read any of her ‘science fiction’. I actually tend not really read science fiction, though not for any good reason. It is very rare that a good piece of science fiction does not thoroughly impress me. Particularly those that are of a dystopian nature – or of a political future that is terrifying. Margaret has managed to capture that sensation in this book. I was frightened about the world that this book created. Or didn’t really create.

Because it is set in the future. The very near future. It makes references to culture and technology that, over the past decade, has come to dominate our lives. Addiction to science and striving for more, dangerous contagions around the world, genetic modification and the promise of containment that we don’t really and can’t really trust, the destruction of the entire race of humanity. The creation of a new race. The nondestruction of the entire race (are there really more out there?).

And it is a story told through relationships that were never quite comfortable. A world without comfortable relationships, and terrifying social and moral ills. That is the world in which you find yourself as a reader – but it feels like maybe, just maybe, this world is set in the tomorrow. The immediate tomorrow. And that is frightening.

The protagonist, Snowman/Jimmy (a naming scheme that is so fantastically used throughout the novel) was good friends for years with Crake (whose other name is ultimately not important). Crake is a genius – a certifiable genius. Top-performing student, given particularly strong financial backing from the corporations that own him and his work. But he is inhuman – perhaps. Morally that is. And he tries to become a god, a creator of new bioforms.

And succeeds.

His greatest success is the small colony of the new race/species/beings that Jimmy/Snowman saves from total annihilation just as the world is starting to end. Does this make sense? Am I communicating this well? Probably not. But Snowman is tasked with having to outline this world to this new species – and does so by using language. Jimmy was talented with language – he went to an arts school rather than a science school. He knows how to manipulate and use words to make the world buy things they don’t need but think that they really want. And that skill serves him well in his new position of oracle between the race and their two Gods, Oryx and Crake.

Does this make sense? It didn’t make sense to me. And I don’t want to say much more, because I don’t want to give away anything of the story. Everything meets together in a really exciting way in this book, and it is revealed masterfully (this is Atwood that we are talking about). Eventually it does make sense, too. Mystically and mythically. The world gets reborn, but not with hope – with the reality of a rebirth created by man – a species that doesn’t exist any longer (mostly doesn’t, anyways). And the world that is reborn is not really one that most would want to live in. At least, not one I would want to live in.

Recommended. Part one of an unconnected trilogy of books that I will have to read (the final part being Atwood’s next novel to be published).

I will leave you with an excerpt. Because Atwood is worth reading – even if it is only on a blog:

“I am not my childhood,” Snowman says out loud. He hates these replays. He can’t turn them off, he can’t change the subject, he can’t leave the room. What he needs is more inner discipline, or a mystic syllable he could repeat over and over to tune himself out. What were those things called? Mantras. They’d had that in grade school. Religion of the Week. All right, class, now quiet as mice, that means you, Jimmy. Today we’re going to pretend we live in India, and we’re going to do a mantra. Won’t that be fun? Not let’s all choose a word, a different word, so we can each have our own special mantra.

“Hang on to the words,” he tells himself. The odd words, the old words, the rare words. Valance. Norn. Serendipity. Pibroch. Lubricious. When they’re gone out of his head, these words, they’ll be gone, everywhere, forever. As if they had never been.

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